10/09/2008 12:00AM

Casino Drive truly the mystery horse

Barbara D. Livingston
Casino Drive training at Belmont Park last spring. The Japanese-based horse is trying for a monumental feat: Win the Breeders' Cup Classic in his third career race.

INGLEWOOD, Calif. - There is a pathway at the south end of Hollywood Park's stable area that leads from Barn 50, at the west end, all the way up to the training track, at the east end. On Wednesday morning, shortly after sunrise, two horses began walking on that path, up and down, with nary a rest, for nearly an hour. Then they went to the main track to gallop.

The training regimen is highly unusual in the United States, but for anyone who was at Belmont Park four months ago, the scene was quite familiar. Casino Drive, one of those horses, had that extensive training schedule nearly every morning at Belmont Park leading up to the Belmont Stakes. But he never made the race.

Now, he has returned from Japan, perhaps even more of a mystery horse this time around. Casino Drive will be attempting, quite improbably, to take on the best horses in the world, in only his third lifetime start, his first start on a synthetic surface, off a five-month layoff, in the Breeders' Cup Classic on Oct. 25 at Santa Anita.

"It is a very difficult challenge," Nobutaka Tada, the racing manager for owner Hidetoshi Yamamoto, acknowledged. "The Breeders' Cup is for champions. We are at a big disadvantage.

"But Mr. Yamamoto likes international racing, and Mr. Fijusawa," Tada said, referring to Casino Drive's trainer, Kazuo Fujisawa, "likes a challenge. And there are no borders for the horses."

Tada, a native of Japan who lives in Tokyo and speaks flawless English, has been the spokesman for Casino Drive's connections. He was a familiar face this spring, when Casino Drive was training up to the Belmont Stakes. And he - along with three members of Fujisawa's staff - came to Hollywood Park last week with Casino Drive and Champagne Squall, a maiden who accompanied Casino Drive to New York earlier this year, too. Those two colts were wearing out that southern path in the Hollywood stable area Wednesday morning.

"He's happy," Tada said Wednesday as Casino Drive walked by. "He looks well."

Casino Drive came to New York from Japan earlier this year with one goal, to win the Belmont Stakes, a feat accomplished the two previous years by his older siblings, Jazil and Rags to Riches. Casino Drive won the Peter Pan Stakes, in only his second start, but he never made it to the Belmont, having to be scratched the morning of the race after appearing lame all week. He has not raced since.

"He had a stone bruise in his left hind foot," Tada said. "I can't express how disappointed we were that we could not run. We targeted the Belmont because of his pedigree. But I think we did the right thing, and we gave him time to recover. If we would have run, we would have been in serious trouble.

"It took him much longer than we expected to recover," Tada said. "We were concerned for a long time after we arrived in Japan. It was a month and a half before we started riding him. He lost weight. We thought we might not make it here. We were originally going to come in mid-September, but we delayed his departure a couple of weeks."

The agricultural rules in Japan and the United States that affect a bid like this are complex and daunting. Tada said Casino Drive was in quarantine for a week upon returning to Japan, then in isolation for another three weeks. Were Casino Drive to stay in the United States for more than 60 days, upon his return to Japan he would have to spend 10 days in quarantine and another three months in isolation.

"People said, 'Why not come for the Travers?' That's why," Tada said. "It's too hard. It's very difficult."

Casino Drive made his debut in February in Japan and won easily, then came to New York. With only two starts, and two wins, he still has allowance conditions. There is a 1 1/16-mile race for which he would be eligible in the condition book for Sunday at Santa Anita's Oak Tree meeting. Entries for that race were to be taken Thursday morning, but Tada said it was "unlikely" Casino Drive would run in that race.

"He will probably go to the Classic directly," Tada said.

In other Classic news:

* Travers Stakes winner Colonel John, who will be heading to the Classic off a two-month layoff, breezed a half-mile in 46.80 seconds on Wednesday at Santa Anita.

* Curlin, the defending champion in the Classic and the 2007 Horse of the Year, will work between races on Monday at Santa Anita, in company, so as to best approximate the conditions under which he would race in the Classic if he does compete, assistant trainer Scott Blasi said.